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Lorry Drivers (Working Conditions)

Volume 961: debated on Wednesday 24 January 1979

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asked the Secretary of State for Transport what statutory provisions govern lorry drivers' hours and distances in the United Kingdom.

The principal provisions are contained in the Transport Act 1968 and EEC regulation 543/69.

If those regulations have the force of law, how has the Secretary of State given guidance to the enforcement authorities that they should not choose to enforce the law in those respects unless other offences have been committed at the same time?

I think that the whole House appreciates the problems raised for the industry as a result of regulation 543/69, because we had a lengthy discussion about it. I did my best at the Transport Council to ease the introduction of this regulation and to modify it as far as I could. I think that, by common consent, it was felt that there should be a running in or transitional period, as it were, so that there could be adjustment to the new regulation. This has generally been found to be successful and was largely welcomed. However, I agree that it produces some apparent anomalies in a country where the law is usually rigidly enforced.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that many hon. Members were not present when we discussed this matter? One of the main reasons why the dispute is proving so intractable is that the regulations are complex. Drivers are going round saying that they work three times the national average on overtime. The authorities are now saying "We must have 24 hours off per week. That leaves only six days. We can drive only eight hours a day. Six eights are 48. Even if we get a 100 per cent. increase, if we work only half the hours, we shall be worse off than we were before." This wretched Common Market regulation and the ham-handed way in which it has been brought into operation have caused much of the trouble today.

My hon. Friend's remarks indicate the complexity of EEC regulation 543/69. But I must frankly point out that, although changes in a law of this kind inevitably lead to dissatisfaction and place additional burdens on the road haulage industry, I do not believe that in any conceivable way this can be a major cause of the present dispute.

Has the Minister's attention been drawn to a conversation between a Dutch lorry driver and pickets who tried to stop him at one of the Channel ports? If I may translate his language into parliamentary language, to the pickets who said "Stop" he replied "Do you realise that you are messing up your country? You are not going to mess up mine." The Dutch work under Common Market regulations.

I had not heard that story. I repeat that, although these regulations are complex and place a burden on our industry, I do not believe that there is anything in them which is not capable of solution in a normal and orderly way.

Despite my right hon. Friend's statement that the EEC regulation is not a serious contribution to the dispute, is it not clear that this is one of the most serious aspects in the dispute? It complicates the whole matter. It is no use my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench shaking their heads. They ought to get out and talk to lorry drivers. They will then know that this is one of the most important issues. Lorry drivers have to know the situation. My right hon. and hon. Friends should stop hiding their heads in the sand.

There have been the closest consultations between my Department and the Transport and General Workers' Union to enable these complex regulations to be understood. I pay tribute to the TGWU, and in particular to Mr. Jack Ashwell for the help that he has given in this respect.

Whatever may be said, I return to the point that it cannot be argued that these regulations are a principal or major cause of the present dispute.

The reduction in drivers' hours which will occur will affect only a minority of drivers, and they are amongst those who are the most highly paid.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the Opposition entirely support his view that these drivers' hours are not a major factor in the dispute? Does he agree that his hon. Friends below the Gangway would be tar better employed joining him and urging an immediate return to work and supporting those drivers who are demonstrating today to make it clear that they want the right to work?

Inevitably, there is much anger and many different views on both sides of the dispute. One important point which must be borne in mind is that the Government are not a party to the dispute. If the Road Haulage Association' present 15 per cent. offer—which, in my view, is far too high—were accepted, about two-thirds of lorry drivers now on strike would be earning £90 or more a week, apart from fringe benefits. That is significantly above present average earnings in this country.